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If someone is least wrong in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, it’s A.J. Hinch

If someone is least wrong in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, it’s A.J. Hinch

A.J. Hinch zipped in and out of his 2019 World Series press conferences with impressive speed. He was never late, quickly walked into the room, sat, handled questions with clarity, calm and charm. Then he dashed out the side door.

Hinch didn’t short-change his answers despite rocket-fueled entrances and departures. He appeared the lone part of Houston’s managerial hierarchy to understand what was actually happening when Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein reported the buffoonery coming from the Astros clubhouse after Houston won the American League pennant last season. And now, after a 25-minute on-camera mea culpa in front of a well-coiffed Tom Verducci, Hinch has graduated to least wrong in this sign-stealing fiasco.

He is wrong. Don’t mistake that. Hinch said as much multiple times Friday night in an interview which aired on MLB Network. However, when Verducci provided him space to wander with his blame, gesture over here or over there, Hinch did not take it. Despite his unmistakable disdain for what was occurring -- he twice smashed the live-feed monitors with a bat -- his players soldiered on. They either didn’t understand Hinch’s point, or, more likely and more damning, didn’t care.

It’s surprising the use of a baseball bat to destroy an object can be classified as a half-measure, but that’s the case here. There was more Hinch could have done: hold a meeting, bench someone who used the sign, kick the person banging the garbage can out of the dugout, tell the general manager. He did not. This was his error. It’s since become his regret.

“I didn’t initiate or endorse it, but I was the manager,” Hinch said. “I think there was a responsibility when you’re in the position to end it.”

He’s right. But a bevy of other tentacles surround this stain. The players could have stopped after discovering an untoward advantage. They chose not to individually, they chose not to when their manager gave them a clear sign to do so, they chose not to the following year. For that, they are culpable. Their continued silence on the topic just further relates their arrogance about the situation. Unwritten rules can be inane and challenging. Here, the entire clubhouse knew they waded well beyond the accepted on-field sign-stealing process. Other teams knew. The Astros knew they knew. Yet, nothing. They didn’t care. They just kept going.

Meanwhile, former Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow continues to slink into the muck. Reporting by The Wall Street Journal on Friday made it clear Luhnow was aware enough of the “dark arts” that he should have asked more questions. Luhnow did one worse than Hinch: he never expressed a scolding finger. He either missed or ignored the signs, a great irony in this debacle.

Which brings us back to Hinch. There is personal value for him to be so blatantly apologetic. He wants to work in baseball again. Verducci mentioned this will be the first time in 24 years that Hinch, 45, will not be going to spring training. Asked if he wants to manage again, Hinch said he did, though noted that it will not be up to him. Measuring his pure motivation is challenging because it’s hard to shake the cynic’s view when assessing an admitted cheat.

While he’s home, unemployed and serving a one-year suspension, Hinch will watch baseball. He will spend time with his daughters. They were immediately on his mind the day he was suspended then quickly fired. Major League Baseball delivered its damning report and forceful reaction Jan. 13. Hinch was in Minute Maid Park. Owner Jim Crane called, asked him to come into Houston, then was told Hinch was already downstairs. Come up, Crane said. They talked. It was emotional. Hinch was dismissed. His next thought was to get his kids out of school before the news blazed across their phones. Crane went on to explain his decisions to the world less than an hour later.

There is no sympathy to be delivered here, nor is this done. The WSJ report could well lead to more firings. Questions in West Palm Beach will flood the Astros from the first day on. Luhnow could be done in baseball. Each time the Astros organization appears to have settled on bottom, a fresh shovel is pulled out. And, more broadly, it’s fair to wonder who is running baseball organizations. If the World Series winner appears to be circumventing the manager, who is really in charge across the league?

But, with Hinch, there is at least a dose of self-assigned culpability. He sat down in his house, answered the questions, did not waiver.

“My personality is to take the burden for everybody else,” Hinch said.

He tried to Friday. Now, everyone else can feel free to join in.

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David Ortiz lauds Juan Soto's rare confidence, says Nationals star was seven years ahead of him

David Ortiz lauds Juan Soto's rare confidence, says Nationals star was seven years ahead of him

Juan Soto had all the talent you could hope for as a 20-year-old star outfielder in the major leagues, it was just a matter of him putting it all together. 

In the 2019 World Series against the Astros, the Nationals' phenom did just that, posting a .333/.438/.741 slash line to go along with three homers, seven RBI and a number of clutch hits in the seven-game series. 

Not only that, but Soto raked against the Astros with so much confidence that he caught the eye of Red Sox legend and future Hall of Famer David Ortiz. 

The greatest DH of all time noticed a particular at-bat against Astros ace Justin Verlander. Verlander threw a fastball high for a ball, and his catcher argued the strike zone with the umpire given Verlander's desire to throw up in the zone. 

"And during this argument Soto got in and he said, 'Tell him to throw it a bit lower and I'll show him where's the strike zone,'" Ortiz said in a recent interview. "Believe me, I was watching all of that. Then Verlander threw the pitch he was asking for and Soto almost got the ball way out of the stadium. In my language, as a guy who played baseball professionally for 20 years ... I learned that confidence this kid already has at 21 years old, I got that confidence at about 28 years old. He's seven years ahead of me."

By the time Ortiz turned 28, he had played over seven seasons in the majors (two with Boston) and had hit 130 home runs to go with a .278/.359/.517 slash line. Once he got settled in on the Red Sox, Ortiz began to solidify himself as one of the game's best sluggers. 

Just two seasons into his professional career, Soto has hit .286/.403/.535 with 56 home runs. You don't want to start making impossible comparisons for a player just 21 years old, but Soto's first two years have been incredible. Not to mention the fact he delivered Washington its first World Series championship. 

Once the 2020 season gets underway, we'll see how high Soto can climb. It'll be difficult without Anthony Rendon in the lineup, though he seemed to do fine filling the void left by Bryce Harper.

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Revisiting five trades that shaped the Nationals

Revisiting five trades that shaped the Nationals

Asked a few weeks back if the end of spring training caused the end of trade discussions, Mike Rizzo said that was the case.

The Nationals, like every other team, were trying to figure out what’s next instead of hunting for trade solutions in early spring. Nothing about business was usual.

Though this stall does provide time for reflection. We’ll do some of that today, in the coming days via Nationals Talk Supreme Court on the podcast, and until baseball resumes.

For now, let’s look back on five trades which shaped the Nationals. Most good, one still up for debate and one you might recall with Jonathan Papelbon.

Dec. 19, 2014
In:
Trea Turner and Joe Ross
Out: Steven Souza
Also involved: Wil Myers to San Diego
Overview: It’s hard to now fathom the Nationals without Turner. He’s been in the major leagues for five years -- three of them full seasons outside of injured list time from being hit by pitches. He’s a quality defensive shortstop, multi-faceted top-of-the-order bat, and growing among the faces of the franchise. Turner can’t become a free agent until 2023, right around the time prospect Luis Garcia should be ready to come to the major leagues.

Historically, Turner will be labeled the “player to be named later” in this trade, making him one of the best PTBNLs in baseball history (David Ortiz may be No. 1 there).

Ross’ future will determine what level of swindle this ultimately is. Turner is a 14.1 bWAR player to this point despite losing almost a full season because he was hit by pitches in separate years. Souza has been a 5.9 bWAR player since 2015. Myers has 8.5 bWAR since arriving in San Diego (where he also had injury problems). So, Turner’s performance is on par with what Souza and Myers have combined to do.

Which leaves Ross. The Nationals are wondering if he is heading toward a post-Tommy John breakthrough. The fifth starter spot was going to him or Austin Voth when spring training stopped. Anything he adds makes the trade all the more lucrative.

Dec. 23, 2011
In:
Gio Gonzalez, Robert Gilliam
Out: Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole, Derek Norris, Tommy Milone
Overview: Gonzalez was a needed arm in the Nationals’ rotation and became one of the young franchises important pieces -- until the end.

He racked up 21.6 bWAR before being traded to Milwaukee after his starts became laborious and ineffective. Gonzalez was one of the more affable players in the Nationals’ clubhouse while in Washington. He’s addicted to Jordan brand anything, once brought a giant boom box to his locker and surprisingly befriended Jonathan Papelbon when the enigmatic closer worked in Washington.

Gonzalez was also one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball while part of the Nationals’ push toward relevancy.

Norris is out of Major League Baseball. Cole is a non-roster invitee with the Blue Jays. Milone is a non-roster invitee with the Orioles and has not pitched well since 2014. Peacock has bounced between the bullpen and starting since the trade, amassing just 4.6 WAR after joining Houston following another trade in 2012.

July 16, 2017
In:
Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler
Out: Blake Treinen, Jesus Luzardo, Sheldon Neuse
Overview: You may have heard: The Nationals had a bad bullpen in 2017. And the next year. And last year.

To fix this, Rizzo brought in three veteran relievers. Doolittle, who is now one of the team’s main voices and its closer, can be a free agent at the end of the year. Madson and Kintzler both pitched well when first arriving.

Treinen dominated for a year in Oakland before falling flat last season. Luzardo’s future will ultimately decide how this trade is viewed. He’s still just 22 years old and appears ready to be a lethal threat in Oakland’s rotation for years to come. He’s precisely the kind of prospect the Nationals’ current farm system lacks. But, as Rizzo would argue, you have to give to get. And the Nationals were desperate at the time to fix the bullpen. Treinen was not pitching well, either.

Rizzo sent a chunk of the future for a patch since Madson and Kintzler were gone the following season. Doolittle may not be far behind them.

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Dec. 8, 2016
In:
Adam Eaton
Out: Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López, Dane Dunning
Overview: How much does winning the World Series change the perception of this trade?

Hard-liners could argue acquiring Eaton -- even under the assumption Bryce Harper was leaving -- can never be worth trading three starting pitcher prospects. His 2017 knee injury doesn’t help his defense, but there’s also no way for an organization to predict an acute injury like that.

The assessment revolves around Giolito, who became an all-star last season, and Eaton’s 2019 World Series performance. His .993 OPS produced an argument for his series MVP consideration. Giolito was also one of baseball’s worst pitchers in 2018, when he led the American League in earned runs allowed and walks.

So, Giolito still has work to do to prove he’s an elite pitcher. López has fluctuated between solid and putrid. Dunning is coming off Tommy John surgery (but was pitching well prior).

Eaton has never performed as expected outside of the World Series. Is that enough to declare this a Washington win? It may be.

July 28, 2015
In:
Jonathan Papelbon
Out: Nick Pivetta
Overview: We can’t talk about recent trades and not mention this one.

Papelbon’s arrival was a jolt. He instantly became a clubhouse influence -- in both directions. His pitching in 2015 was so-so, but, again, the Nationals needed bullpen help. Which made Papelbon the new closer and lead participant in one of the strangest acts in franchise history.

Papelbon choked Bryce Harper on the dugout steps when the two got into a late-game fight. Manager Matt Williams claimed not to see the fight and sent Papelbon back to the mound to pitch the ninth inning. The fight also coincided with the “Jersey off their backs” giveaway and yoga in the outfield. While reporters typed away their stories covering the in-fighting, a yoga instructor was talking about peace and breathing over the stadium’s PA system with dozens of people stretching across mats in the outfield.

As if that mix wasn’t odd enough, Papelbon returned the next season. He held one press conference in spring training to discuss the situation, saying he would answer anything asked at the time, but wouldn’t talk about it again. He was released Aug. 13, 2016. He hasn’t pitched since.

Pivetta has been a subpar pitcher since arriving in Philadelphia.

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